Bureaucracy: a tale of fear and loathing

Mind if I talk to you about bureaucrats? Yes, really. I’m guessing from that pained expression that you’ve probably heard most of the rumours. By day they personally handcuff police officers to desks, lock teachers in stationery cupboards, and force doctors and nurses to endure the pained cries of ward patients while they ponder if they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with the contents of the vending machine. By night this unrelenting thirst for organisation and form-filling drives them to stitch together metre-long strips of red tape, print reams of pointless questionnaires for their own wicked pleasure, order the contents of their cupboards in alphabetical order (again), and still find time to howl at the moon.

The poor sods. Not only do they have to contend with such sweeping generalisations on top of being regarded as life’s great water-carriers and spoilers, bureaucrats frequently find themselves being used as a collective political punchbag — one which everyone, regardless of their political leaning, is invited to take a free swing at. Indeed, pre-election posturing by the major political parties wouldn’t be quite the same without bold attention-seeking promises of huge ‘slashes’ and ‘cuts’ to public service administrative procedures[1]. I think this quote from British Liberal Democrat leader-turned-coalition-government-stooge Nick Clegg back in March last year demonstrates perfectly the kind of knocks bureaucracy has to endure[2]:

“Something has to give. If it’s a choice between doctors, nurses and beds and bureaucracy, I know what I will choose.”

Now I don’t know about you but that sounds to me like being offered a straight choice between eternal life, world peace, a healthy planet, and free piano lessons. It seems bureaucracy, with its plain, unglamorous, papier-mâché-esque features, often has to assume the role of the fainting goat, while more divisive subjects with the potential to split an electorate (be it economic, environmental, or foreign matters to name but a few) hightail it to safer pastures.

The problem, I believe, is this modern toxic image that bureaucracy conjures up in our minds: one of dull, overly-fastidious drones stifling genuine and blindingly obvious progress, safe within the confines of their ivory towers of power. We like to imagine everyone involved in this whole sorry business is unproductive, unhappy, frustrated, and gorging on copious amounts of our biscuits. Probably.

But wait: wasn’t it bureaucracy and systems of government at their most pure and infantile that helped elevate human civilisation from the laborious rigours of jabbing one another with sharp sticks and trading nothing more than furrow-browed stares? No, not really, but looking back through history we can confidently point to bureaucracy as one of the chief reasons how one empire (say, the Ottoman Turks) could outlast another (the Inca Empire) by centuries. Financial and military might could only take them so far; they also needed to master the art of maintaining a sense of organisation and continuity — where the power in the centre is properly deployed at the outermost edge — to sustain their empire through testing times and incompetent hereditary rulers[3].

And that’s precisely when bureaucracy reveals its signature move: its complete and utter disregard for snap emotional decision-making. When things go wrong for large-scale organisations or governments (be it: natural disasters, hygiene alerts, successful hacking attempts, wardrobe malfunctions, and so on), when people in positions of power begin to entertain rash thoughts of possible reactions and reprisals, when their every move, statement, or victim’s story is played out in the public arena by an, often equally, hyperbolic media, they’ve come to depend on rigid semi-automated bureaucratic systems developed in less giddy times to steer them somewhere approaching the right direction[4] — like a master villain’s big red button rigged up to the escape hatch.

Putting aside our contemporary prejudices for one moment we can (I think) roughly compare a lean bureaucratic system with that of a multi-departmental organisation’s internal content workflow: the organised and (at its best) automated act of delegating content tasks, responsibilities, and authority. A place where content is written and structured consistently according to pre-defined standards and reuse rules are applied to help ensure little time, money, and resources are lost re-creating the same content[5]. I don’t think this sounds overly fussy, constipated, or inefficient does it?

So come on, let’s take a moment to celebrate this impartial, metronomic, and measured inhabitant of the ‘expert machinery of mankind’[4]: the humble bureaucrat …

… right, I’m jolly glad that’s over. Can we all go back to disliking them again?


  1. Simon Jenkins for The Guardian, Lord, make me slash back bureaucracy. But not yet
  2. Aditya Chakrabortty for The Guardian, Why we need bureaucrats
  3. A History of the World in 100 Objects – Episode 71
  4. Peter Preston for The Guardian, Bureaucracy is fine for them, not us
  5. Managing Enterprise Content, Ann Rockley, New Riders 2003

2 thoughts on “Bureaucracy: a tale of fear and loathing

  1. Charlie Peverett

    I blame Kafka.

    Nice meandering…. Best defence for a good bureaucrat (and that just sounds wrong) could be to make what they do visible, comprehensible to others, meaningful. Much like job of selling content strategy.

    I guess being repeatedly compared with someone who directly saves lives is always going to be awkward. But being the person who helps people who save lives to save lives – there’s a story in there, somewhere (not by Kafka).

  2. Richard Post author

    Charlie, Aditya Chakrabortty’s article ‘Why we need bureaucrats’ offered up a very positive example of how bureaucracy contributed to a reduction in violent assaults.

    “Jonathan Shepherd may be the most unlikely bureaucrat I have come across. A surgeon at the university of Cardiff, he persuaded local officials a few years ago to ask patients coming into A&E simple questions about where and how they had been attacked. Because violent assaults are hardly ever reported to the police, this was rare information. Once these had been processed by an official analyst – a bureaucrat – the authorities had a map of hot spots of violence, and could police them better. The result was a 30% drop in assaults within three years – thanks to bureaucracy.”

    Thanks for the reply.